MANTENO — Twenty-four miles. One mission.

This was the mantra of Manteno resident Jake Smith on Sunday morning as he set out to walk the near-marathon distance in honor of several local suicide victims and to raise awareness about mental health throughout the streets of Manteno as September kicks off National Suicide Awareness Month.

A surprise note of encouragement greeted Smith as he began his walk, mile markers were placed on his route by supporters, dozens honked as they passed by and neighbors awaited to accompany him on his final 2-mile stretch.

Smith returned home eight hours and 20 minutes after departing Diversatech Drive at 9:30 a.m. and shared his thoughts following the event.

What were some reactions you got as you walked around town? Did anybody join in today?

I did have a lot of people honking at me as I walked through town — smiling, giving thumbs up and waving at me. A few people did join in with me and walked a few miles. My neighbors joined in on the last couple of miles, walked with me and escorted me back home. I was truly surprised.

Why 24 miles?

I had originally planned on walking 21 miles today. Twenty-one was the age of the oldest suicide victim in Manteno. But my tracking app kept messing up when I had the 21 miles mapped out. I felt like maybe it was a sign from above telling me that 21 miles just wasn’t quite long enough. So, I added a couple of extra neighborhoods onto the route. Perhaps a few extra lives were impacted by that.

When you got tired, what kept you going?

All of the talk of walking 24 miles, I couldn’t break that promise and that commitment. I truly had to walk the walk. The lives I could impact motivated me. The physical pain I feel is nothing compared to the mental and emotional pain that the families of those who have lost a loved one to suicide or addiction. I had to practice what I preach. I preach about never giving up when the pain gets rough. I had to prove that you can fight through the pain.

I think of the support. I’m doing this for my community. I don’t want to take shortcuts. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. It is all about fighting to the finish. The people of this community were my motivation to not give up. They are fighters. So am I. We fight together.

What did walking today mean to you?

Walking today was personal because I not only advocate for mental health and suicide awareness, but I also struggle with mental illness myself. I live with major depression and severe anxiety. I have been down the road where I felt like ending it all because the pain just felt like too much to handle. There are so many others out there that are going through the same struggles and the same thoughts.

So many people are suffering in silence. I wanted to be the one to step up to the plate and be their voice and be the light in their darkness. I know the pain of the struggles. I know the thoughts of no longer wanting to be in pain anymore. They are a living nightmare.

As an advocate, I have heard so many stories from people, and it is very alarming how many are truly out there struggling — just in Manteno alone. I created the Manteno Community Public Mental Health Support Group to bring people together and share their struggles. Having learned so many stories and meeting new people, I felt like we’d rallied together.

Now, it was time to put some thoughts into action and take to the streets.

What do you hope others who saw or joined you take away from this?

I hope that the people who joined me know that they got to be a part of the change in breaking the stigma that surrounds mental health. I hope that they know they are truly appreciated by me and everyone else struggling. I hope today shined a light on people’s darkness. I hope today made an everlasting impact on the community. I hope today gave hope. There’s more people cheering you on than you think.

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